It’s All Hallows’ Eve, a day for witches and their warlocks, for devils, goblins, banshees, nosferatus and zombies. It’s my favourite tradition of the year, the day when I dream of morphing into a spellbinding Veronica Lake in I married a Witch or of riding broomsticks with Julian Sands in Warlock.
Growing up in Paris, Halloween seemed a phantasmical, hallucinatory figment of my imagination, as we seemed to be the only Parisians who celebrated this most peculiar of holidays. It’s only recently that you will see the French deign to celebrate “Allo-ween,” a très American holiday, and still eyed with some degree of suspicion. As my birthday falls in October, my mother Shelley would host an annual Halloween birthday party for me. My bemused friends would come dressed up with full spooky instructions from Shelley. She would dress up as a witch and read petrifying stories to us: parents seemed to be a lot more casual in those days, and the kids kept coming back for more year after year.
My daughter Eloise says that what she likes most about Halloween is that she can unleash her “Americaness”. We’ve become quite the British family, and this is the time when she gets to be a little bit spooktacularly over-the-top. The youngest of course, likes the candy, the sweets, les bonbons.
Jack, the very bad Lad
I decided it would be fun to head down to Whitechapel and visit the Jack the Ripper museum. The museum also organises a 90-minute tour at 4pm daily. I’ve been fascinated by the Ripper since the 1979 film Time after Time, where writer HG Wells follows Jack into the 20th century after the serial killer steals Wells’s time machine to escape arrest.
The Ripper, or Whitechapel murders, took place between August and November 1888. Victorian London was terrorised and gripped with Jack the Ripper fever. The first of the victims was Mary Nichols, followed by Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly (the latter is sometimes disputed as being one of Jack’s victims).
In the devil’s footsteps
The tour started at Tower Hill where were met by our guide Sam, dressed the part and carrying a briefcase stuffed full of case notes on the world’s most infamous serial killer. Sam is writing a book about Jack the Ripper and is very enthusiastic. I won’t give away his theories on whodunit in case you decide to do the tour, but he has some interesting ideas. Note: this tour is not for the faint-hearted!
Sam walked us through one of the few remnants of the London Wall. Built in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, the Roman wall was what was then known as Londinium’s defensive barrier against insurgent Saxons and Vikings. Most of the wall has now disappeared, but fragments of it can be found here in a courtyard on Cooper’s Row, as well as at The Barbican, Museum of London and in the basement of some buildings.
The heart of London includes the City of Westminster and the City of London. The boundary dragons you see dotted here and there mark the entrances to the City of London. Each of these areas has its own police force: four of the five murders took place in Whitechapel and were under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police; Catherine Eddowes was murdered in Mitre Square and therefore her investigation came under the jurisdiction of the City of London.
Murder Most Diabolical
Night of the Double Murder: On the 30th September, 1888 at around 12.45am, Elizabeth Stride’s body was discovered in Dutfield’s Yard. At 1.45am, the body of Catherine Eddowes was discovered by a policeman in Mitre Square. The square is now shadowed by the Gherkin, one of London’s most iconic buildings. Local lore is that Catherine’s ghost can be seen on the anniversary of her murder in the exact spot where she was found.
A short walk away from Mitre Square is Goulston Street where the only Ripper clue was ever found: a missing portion of Catherine’s apron. The blade of the knife had been wiped on it and it was stained with blood and faeces. This was also the site of the chalked graffiti “The Juwes are not the men that will be blamed for nothing.”
Did you know? One positive outcome of the murders was that gas lighting was finally introduced to London in order to illuminate its hitherto coal-black streets, alleys and passages.
Sam, our friendly tour guide from the Jack the Ripper Museum. Wrap up warm if you decide to go on the tour, and take an umbrella! Jack the Ripper Museum
Jack the Ripper Museum
Truth or Fiction?
Did the police really use optography, the science of capturing the retina’s last image before death, in an attempt to see a stored image of the Jack the Ripper?
Here are just some of the suspects in the Jack the Ripper case. Can you see a pattern?
- Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence and grandson to Queen Victoria
- Montague John Druitt, a barrister
- George Chapman (née Seweryn Antonowicz Kłosowski), a Polish immigrant
- Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew
- David Cohen (née Nathan Kaminsky), a bootmaker
- Michael Ostrog, a Russian-born thief
- Walter Sickert, a German-born artist
- Francis Tumblety, a quack doctor
- John Pizer, a Polish Jew and bootmaker
- Sam’s theory (you’ll have to go on the walk to hear about it!)
Worthwhile in Whitechapel
The Whitechapel Gallery is an Arts and Crafts building designed by Charles Harrison Townsend and founded in 1901 by Canon Samuel Barnet, a local vicar and campaigner for local reform .Picasso’s Guernica was exhibited here in 1939 on its only visit to the UK, and the gallery has also been home to works by Rothko, Pollock, Hockney, Kahlo and Freud. The Whitechapel Gallery
Christ Church Spitafields
Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church boasts a beautiful interior, an organ dating back to 1735 and made by Handel’s favourite organ builder Richard Bridge, a Venetian window and a cosy crypt café.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Established in 1570, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is the oldest manufacturing company in Britain. The foundry has produced some supreme bells including: Big Ben; The Liberty Bell located in Philadelphia; the Clock Bells at St Paul’s; and the Bell of Hope, gifted to New York by the Lord Mayor of London a year after 9/11. For a 90-minute tour of the foundry, check their website Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Royal London Hospital
Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man, died at the Royal London Hospital on the 11th April 1890 at the age of 27, and a replica of his skeleton is on display at the hospital’s museum. I was lucky enough to see Bradley Cooper in the stage adaptation of The Elephant Man last year: it was a stellar but heartbreaking performance. The museum also includes medical artefacts and a forensic medicine section with Jack the Ripper material. The museum is located in the crypt of a 19th century church and is free of charge. Royal London Hospital Museum
If you still have an appetite after the walk, head over to Brick Lane which has the largest concentration of curry houses in Britain. Also on Brick Lane is a favourite of mine: Chez Elles. This cosy and very French bistro transports you out of Ripper’s London straight into Piaf’s Paris. There’s an Express Lunch menu for £9.50 which includes a glass of wine or you could splash out on two courses for £17.50. I recommend the Croque Forrestier: a tasty mushroom, béchamel and fried egg toastie.
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